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So You Want to Write A Western
by Dusty Richards

Those giant cactus called Saguaros with arms like a person twisted up to the sky do not grow in Texas. I don’t care what choreographers in what western movie put them there on the silver screen as part of the Lone Star State’s landscape; they only grow in central Arizona down into Mexico. They are not natural plants even across the shallow, muddy Colorado River on the California side. In a recent new novel, this author wrote the Johnson grass brushed the man’s leg riding down in the Canadian River bottoms in western Oklahoma. The year 1870. While that is a common plant now in that region, Colonel Johnson brought the seed from Africa to the Deep South in the 1880’s. When Dan Case asked me to write a how-to article on writing the west--I thought perhaps I should first write what not to write.

First, I don’t want to scare anyone away from writing the western genera. But I do suggest you make a trip to the west and do some good research on your subject first. Take some side roads and get out, smell, taste and see the land. The grease wood bushes smells like creosote lumber. Ponderosa pine forests have a turpentine aroma. Sagebrush smells just like the seasoning used in turkey dressing.

We moved westward from the Mississippi River into a vast grassland. Many trees we see today as we progress west were planted in the dust bowl era. In Missouri and Arkansas, forests did exist, but the primal virgin forests were huge trees that spread out without under growth--blue grass and blue stems grew beneath them. By the time your person reached western Missouri--head high giant blue stems and like grass grew in a belt from Canada to the gulf. They had to cut the grass to make the survey for the Union Pacific railroad across Nebraska it was so tall. A man on horseback couldn’t see over it going up the Platt River Valley.

Indian attacks on wagon trains were very limited to isolated incidents where the small number of wagons made them vulnerable. There was a six-week window to leave for the West. When grass broke dormancy they all left in a steady stream--the Oregon trail was a ten-mile wide desolate area after a few years from over grazing and split the huge buffalo herds into two that formally migrated north and south like geese.

People waited days for the bison herds to pass in the early days. Major causes of death were disease, bad water, rattlesnake bites, drowning at river crossings, lightening strikes, accidental gunshot wounds, bandits and then Indians. Oxen were the main choice of draft animal. First they were cheap. They could get by on grass without grain. Many mules were used on the Santa Fe trail in the overland trade business. Draft horses were the least desirable. Remember how small a wagon box is--not a North American van. A space four by sixteen. You needed farm utensils like a plow and seed, your food for the trip and water barrels. People were forced to abandon all sorts of furniture and items along the trail—couldn’t haul them and get there. Most were used for firewood. The main fuel for cooking was buffalo chips. I recommend you build a fire with dried cow chips and see what a sorry fuel it is to cook over. And write down in your journal and book what the smoke smelled like.

No 7-11’s, no refrigeration--little water once you reached what is western Kansas today. No place to bath or wash your clothes. Most followed rivers, the Oregon trail followed the Platt, the Santa Fe tracked the Arkansas, but these soon became small streams.

Contrary to western movies, the principal firearm was a cap and ball rifle or pistol. Until the year 1872, there were few cartridge weapons like we have today. Even after that folks still used powder and ball, because it was cheaper and some found it more dependable. The original repeating rifles like the Spencer and Winchester, had rim fire ammo and spit the bullet out to a short range. Pistols like the Colt were belly guns and like Jim Bowie’s famous knife good in close range for a fight. Don’t have someone before 1872 jamming shells in his six-gun. The .22 was available to shoot small game from before the civil war. Shotguns too, but many were muzzle loaded. A famous English made one was called the "Greener." The great fifty-caliber Sharps buffalo gun was a virtual cannon. It could kill buffalo at near a quarter mile range. Hide hunters could shoot an entire herd down and if they made good kill shots the herd never noticed.

Saloons provided mostly bad liquor and warm beer. They were the gathering places for the male society. Gambling was big. From wheel games to pasteboard cards, people wagered to win or lose fortunes in gold, cattle and ranching empires. Places like Tombstone provided it all--so the high-paid miners (three to five dollars a day) spent it and didn’t go back home.

Prostitution was the way of life in a woman-short society. Ages of the workers in cathouses and cribs began as young as twelve. Bat Masterson, a famous Kansas frontier lawman, who later became a successful New York sports writer was listed as living in Dodge City with a thirteen year old concubine in the 1870 census. He was in his mid twenties at the time. School marms were usually married off as quick as they arrived. Out of desperation, a Cochise County board sent a board member back east to hire one--fat and ugly. The effort was considered a success. Their candidate lasted six months at teaching before some bowlegged cowboy escorted her up the aisle.

The longhorn cattle and the drives to the railhead and to stock the range left open by the disseminated buffalo lasted almost thirty years. We had eaten every chicken and hog during the civil war--men who walked home from Virginia to Arkansas said they never heard a rooster crow. The North was entering the machine age and had money for protein--many Corn Belt farmers had no market for their corn except to feed cattle. Texas was poor as mud, but had lots of cattle. A man named Joe McCoy solved that by building the first major rail shipping location at Abilene, Kansas and sending agents to Texas--he had a market for those steers that were down there for the taking. This effort made the major ranches of Texas and the small ones too.

The economic times from the civil war to 1900 were some of the wildest in history. Deep depressions, high interest rates, then boom periods that collapsed again. The opening of the Indian lands to homesteaders was caused by the large number of jobless--rather than to have them storm Washington D.C., politicians had the land rushes. They plowed up land that would have been much better left in grass. Contrary to scientists’ theory at the time--we soon learned the rain did not follow the steel plow and the short grass regions turned to wasteland.

Tumble weeds came in the wheat seed the Russian immigrants brought in the 1870’s. Their hard winter wheat was the salvation for the plains. Much as sorghum replaced corn in the later part of the century as a more dependable crop in the dry land.

It is now politically correct to say Indians were great conservationists. That’s good malarkey. The Indian stole the horse from the Spaniard and he went out on the plains. Off horseback he could hunt the buffalo and made a new society of hunter. The success of the hunting process meant that more papooses survived in their Stone Age society. People like the Sioux proliferated. The Blackfeet, a one time major, angry tribe, who attacked Lewis and Clark, died of the small pox before what we called the Indian wars that followed the civil war.

These Stone Age people ranged from the buffalo hunters who were at the top of the list to the lowly Digger Indians who ate insects. From the civilized many-languaged Pueblo Indians that lived in adobe towns along the Rio Grande in New Mexico to the late arriving nomadic Navajo and Apaches who came down from Alaska only a few years before Columbus found this land.

Twenty thousand U.S. soldiers in southern Arizona tried to capture Geronimo. Lieutenant Gatewood and a handful of Apache Scouts of the same tribe finally got him to surrender and come out of Mexico. Custer was killed on a hot day in June, 1876 in southern Montana because he underestimated the enemy and refused to take any Gatling guns along. That would have slowed them down and maybe General Terry would have gotten to the Little Big Horn in time.

Let me end this with a discussion on money. Coins were so short after the civil war--they printed them on paper. The West wanted a silver standard so their mines would be successful. When a silver bill failed to pass congress, the silver business failed too. Mines shut down. The Mexican peso was accepted as a dollar. The more unusual monetary form was the whorehouse tokens produced by various businesses. Some were very explicit in what they would buy and had their value stamped on them from fifty cents to five dollars. These were acceptable in normal trade for face value.

Stagecoaches made ten miles an hour, with frequent changes of horses and bad food at all stops. They tipped over easily and many wrecks occurred. For that time, Butterfield’s completion of the stage line from Tipton, Missouri to San Francisco was a bigger thing than any of our modern space endeavors. Passenger trains ran 20 mph to save the tracks--freight only 12 mph.

Oh yes. Jesse and Frank James managed to evade the law from 1865 till Jesse was shot by one of his own men in the back--the dirty little coward--in April, 1882, an eighteen year almost nation-wide crime spree.

For goodness sake, study history before you try to write westerns. In a future article, we will discuss the how-to as I see it to write western fiction.

© Copyright 2005, Dusty Richards

Dusty Richards is the author of over sixty novels under his own name and pseudonyms. The past two years his novels THE NATURAL and THE ABILENE TRAIL have won the book-of-the-year award at Oklahoma Writers Federation conference. Currently on the stands are THE FORT SMITH TRAIL and DEUCES WILD from Pocket Books and a collection of his western short stories, WALTZING WITH TUMBLEWEEDS, from AWOCBooks.COM. For more about Dusty, visit his website at www.DustyRichards.com

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